Construction, Municipal Liability, Publications

Appellate Court Rules District Court Sidestepped Jury Process in Dispute Over Non ADA-Compliant Courthouses in Illinois

September 11, 2018

For the hundreds of municipalities in Illinois – many with older courthouses and other public buildings – this ongoing dispute over non-ADA-compliant buildings should be of interest.

Overview: The plaintiffs, five wheelchair-using detainees, attended court about once per month in connection with their individual criminal cases. Their court appearances were held in several different court houses in Illinois, which were all built before 1992 and thus are not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) structural accessibility standards. The plaintiffs contend that the county and sheriff failed to provide reasonable modifications with respect to two structural barriers at the courthouses: ramps and bathroom facilities. Plaintiffs would have to navigate steep entrance and exit ramps in their wheelchairs at their monthly court appearances. Once inside, the plaintiffs waited in a holding cell which contained bathroom facilities usually consisting of a combination sink and toilet, set off by translucent “privacy screen.” During the relevant time period, the ramps and bathroom facilities did not comply with the latest accessibility standards. The defendants maintain that they complied with the ADA by enacting a policy of assisting wheelchair-using detainees with ramps and providing a portable commode chair in at least one holding cell per courthouse. However, the plaintiffs stated that they were not consistently assisted in maneuvering the ramps, and could not use the commode chairs, or could do so only with great difficulty. In addition, plaintiffs contend that they were not escorted to public, ADA-compliant restrooms as an alternative. As a result, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the county and its sheriff, alleging violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.  The district court certified a class for purposes of injunctive relief, and the named plaintiffs also sought damages individually for the same alleged violations.

Outcome: In a “mishmosh” of a case, the district court made rulings only to reverse itself on the same issue(s) later.  As a result, the district court’s rulings were ripe for appeal.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Appellate Court ruled that the district court erred in granting plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on issue of ADA liability in their individual damage actions, where district court relied on its findings of fact from its prior decision to grant plaintiffs' request for permanent injunction.  In addition, the district court improperly weighed competing evidence and made credibility determinations that usurped the role of the jury and denied defendant's right to jury trial on said issue. Moreover, where, as here, plaintiffs' legal and equitable claims were joined, defendants' right to jury trial on legal claims and other common issues remained intact, and the district court should have submitted legal claims to the jury prior to resolving any equitable claims. Also, the Seventh Circuit vacated the jury's resolution on plaintiff's damages so that jury could resolve the liability issue in first instance. On remand, if a jury finds violation of the ADA, plaintiffs must establish any intentional violation under the deliberate indifference standard. Lastly, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court, in part, holding that the court did not err in: (1) certifying class members as all detainees who have been assigned or currently use wheelchairs; and (2) granting plaintiffs' request for supplemental permanent injunction requiring defendant to reposition privacy screens in holding cells, where said screens were 1.5 inches too close to rear of holding cells, and where accessibility standards of ADA mandated full compliance by defendants since defendants made efforts to update entire holding cells.

For more information on this case, click here.

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